Children are usually not too keen on eating their ‘greens’. A Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that just 21% of children eat the recommended 5 or more fruits and vegetables per day. Very few children ask to eat ‘greens’ and parents are trying all kinds of methods to persuade their children to eat their vegetables.

One of the methods parents’ try is to hide vegetables, and their quest is made easier by cookbooks that specialize in hiding greens. Some new food products state they contain vegetable servings but do not taste like vegetables! Some dietitians, doctors and parents find this method controversial, arguing that hiding vegetables in food fails to encourage children to eat more greens, as they are unaware that they are eating them and therefore may not eat them in their adult life either.

According to a study in the March/April 2012 issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, children’s food preference and taste may not change, even if children are made aware that the food they eat contains ‘hidden’ vegetables. Whether or not children accept foods enriched with vegetables is likely to depend on how often they ate vegetables previously.

Researchers from the Columbia University conducted a survey in 68 elementary and middle school children, asking them whether they preferred chickpea chocolate chip cookies or chocolate chip cookies.

The children were unaware that both samples contained vegetables, as only one of the cookie sample labels stated that the food contained vegetables, for instance ‘broccoli gingerbread spice cake’, whilst the other label only stated ‘gingerbread spice cake’. The children were asked to report whether the samples tasted the same or whether they preferred one sample or the other.

The findings revealed that there was no preference in taste between the labeled samples and the unlabeled samples of ‘zucchini chocolate chip bread’ or ‘broccoli gingerbread spice cake’, however the participants did report they prefer the unlabeled cookies instead of the vegetable-labeled version. The researchers also evaluated the frequency in which children ate the three vegetables involved and found that chickpeas were eaten less often, with 81% reporting they did not eat chickpeas within the last year, as compared to broccoli and zucchini.

Leading researcher, Ms. Lizzy Pope, MS, RD, declares:

“The present findings are somewhat unanticipated in that we were expecting students to prefer all three of the ”unlabeled” samples. These findings are consistent with previous literature on neophobia that suggests that children are less apt to like food with which they are unfamiliar.

Since the majority of students had had broccoli and zucchini within the past year (as compared to chickpeas), it appears that there must be some familiarity with a vegetable for the labeling of the vegetable content not to influence taste preference. Considering this then, it is not surprising that the unlabeled version of the chickpea chocolate chip cookies was preferred over the labeled version.”

Dr. Randi Wolf, PhD, MPH, who also worked on the study, says:

“Food products labeled with health claims may be perceived as tasting different than those without health claims, even though they are not objectively different. I’ve even read studies that have shown children like baby carrots better when they are presented in McDonald’s packaging. These prior studies suggest the potential power that food labels can have on individuals.

Although anecdotal reports suggest that children may not eat food products that they know contain vegetables, little is actually known about how children’s taste preferences may be affected when the vegetable content of a snack food item is apparent on the item’s label. This study is important in that it may contribute knowledge of the potential effectiveness of a novel way to promote vegetable consumption in children.”

In conclusion, it seems that it is more important for parents to openly feed their children a variety of vegetables instead of constantly trying to hide them.

Written by Petra Rattue